A rally in Tahir Square supporting the military and its top general, January 25, 2014
PHOTOS BY ABDALLA F. HASSAN
ABDALLA F. HASSAN | VICE | February 10, 2014
Speaking in an incensing lisp that ordinarily would have sidelined him from a job in television, the host of nighttime talk show Black Box, Abdul-Rahim Ali, tells an elaborate story of how the January 25 revolution was a plot to bring Egypt to ruin. On the private Egyptian satellite channel, he plays recorded phone conversations of revolutionary activists no doubt obtained from the security agencies, reading into them sinister motives to tar and sully their reputation. He posits that the January 25 revolution is an aberration seized upon by the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign-backed agents and provocateurs—especially the April 6 Youth Movement—who were all the while orchestrating the fall of the nation. They colluded to torch police stations, he goes on, and break open prisons, leaving criminals to roam the streets and terrorize citizens into submission.
The true revolution, Ali asserts, began on June 30 and culminated with the defense minister’s removal of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, recalibrating the military’s dominance over the state. It is a narrative that has gained considerable traction.
“We have the strong belief that our calls are being recorded. Our activities on social media are monitored,” says activist Zizo Abdo. “We are not concerned or afraid because we are not saying anything wrong. We are calling for change and the realization of the revolution’s goals.”
Slanderous accusations have cost the revolutionaries the people’s trust, he admits. During the Islamist president’s rule they enjoyed a wide margin of freedom, and critics freely attacked his policies, Zizo concedes. “Control of the media was not in the hands of Mohamed Morsi or the office of the presidency but in the hands of the security agencies, and with instructions from them there was an attack on the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Three years after a popular uprising to oust Egypt’s authoritarian regime and the revolutionary youth who started it all find themselves back at square one. Their ranks have thinned. Even well-known activists who organized for revolt languish in prison—among them April 6 Youth Movement founder Ahmed Maher and blogger, activist, and computer programmer Alaa Abd El Fattah. Smuggled letters are their sole means of communication with the outside world. Anti-government rallies, bombings, mass arrests, and the death of protesters have become unflinchingly routine occurrences.
Six days away from the Egyptian revolution’s third anniversary, about 100 protesters gathered on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate, demanding the release of political detainees—more than 20,000, according to a tally by rights groups. They raised pickets and chanted slogans against both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood before Zizo decided the protest should end earlier than planned. Security vehicles and police informers were hovering close by, and a rally to release detainees shouldn’t end in more arrests.
“We wanted to end quickly and get the youth out in groups so no one is arrested,” explains Zizo. Fear was not the driving factor; it was a strategic move to protect their numbers. “We’re taking precautions, working with the same mindset as before the revolution.”
Following the rally I walk with Zizo to a downtown café, informally called April 8. It was here that April 6 members regrouped in 2008, two days after a national strike organized on Facebook that launched the youth movement. Ever since, it’s been a hangout and meeting point for the revolutionary crowd, plastic tables and chairs spilling onto the pavement, leaving just enough room for traffic to pass. The aroma of fruity tobacco competes with the smells of urban grime. Here, nearly everyone knows Zizo.
“We see the Muslim Brotherhood as a wing opposed to the revolution, like the military is now,” he tells me. He accuses the Brotherhood of selling out the revolution in their bid for power, and with their political failures and reluctance to compromise ushering the military back onto the political stage.
“The revolutionary wave of June 30 was taken over by the military council once again,” he says. “We see that it is going in the path of an overthrow of the principles and goals of the January 25 revolution; it was a coup on the Muslim Brotherhood.”
With a military-backed government in charge, the reviled practices of the security apparatus have returned with unrestrained tenacity. The state and its media cheerleaders have marshaled the masses in a war on terror, stirring patriotic fervor against all enemies of the state, internal or external, real or imagined. Dissidents, students, and journalists have been jailed, beaten, or harassed in a broad mandate by the security apparatus to quell political unrest.
“We see that we are going toward the consecration of a despotic state,” warns Zizo. “Unfortunately, the consecration comes with a blessing from the people and a blessing from the civil forces that allied with the military.”
The same structures of power and repression are fixed in place. He describes the most useful tentacles of the Mubarak-era “deep state” as being the public prosecutor, the judiciary, and the interior ministry. “We do not have an independent judiciary or independent prosecutors, and neither is the interior ministry skilled in security.”
Earlier in the day I met Zizo at the Revolution Path Front’s high-ceilinged, second floor office in downtown’s stock exchange district. Formed after June 30, the Front is an umbrella group for youth movements and revolutionary activists. It combines the April 6 Youth Movement, the Revolutionary Socialists, and youth who have an Islamist point of reference, like the Egyptian Current Party, formed by breakaway members from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011.
“We are not against those who have an Islamist perspective,” Zizo explains, chain-smoking the local brand of Cleopatra cigarettes, “but we are against the faction of the Muslim Brotherhood who we protested against and contributed to its downfall on June 30. We are against the one faction that wants to dominate.”
Revolutionary loyalties unite them. They share a democratic vision for Egypt that is not in the grip of Mubarak regime loyalists, backers of the military state, or the self-serving Muslim Brotherhood. As they see it, hyper-nationalism is the tonic and tranquilizer of the current rulers, as God and religion were for the Brotherhood under Morsi. In a divided nation, little room is left for a critical and balanced middle course.
Citing articles allowing for the military trial of civilians and the autonomy granted to the military institution, the Front ultimately decided to boycott the vote for a constitution, which passed overwhelmingly in January, garnering 98 percent of the vote. Thirty-nine percent of the electorate participated in a referendum that witnessed a low turnout of young voters. Arrests insured that no one was campaigning for a no vote. While a dozen people lost their lives in clashes during the two days of voting, state and private media honed in on the celebrations surrounding the new charter, featuring middle-aged women dancing in the street.
Squeezed between the dominant camps of backers of the military or the Brotherhood, the Front’s revolutionaries realize they have never been weaker. They have lost the regard of a public that stereotypes them as renegades in beguiling Guy Fawkes disguises hurling Molotov cocktails in battles with police.
On the Thursday before January 25 a group of young men and women held a dialog and strategy session at the office of the Revolution Path Front. They went over scenarios of what they expected on the third anniversary of the start of popular uprising and discussed options for grass-roots mobilization. Their simple objective was to prove the young revolutionaries still have a presence on the street.
“I want to be the thorn in the side of the regime because I cannot provide an alternative,” comments Mamdouh Gamal, who moderated the discussion. He recalls a conversation on the metro with a man lambasting the “armed and dangerous” Muslim Brotherhood.
“Where did they get their weapons?” Mamdouh asked him quizzically.
“They were smuggled across the border,” he answered.
“Who protects the borders?”
“The army,” the man replied.
Mamdouh left him with that thought.
“Our biggest problem,” Mamdouh extrapolated from the encounter, “is that we think for people instead of letting them think for themselves.”
On the eve of the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution, four explosions rocked Greater Cairo, killing six. Fifteen more anti-government protesters lost their lives in clashes with security forces. In addition to a string of bombings over the coming days, a military helicopter was shot down in Sinai with a surface-to-air missile, a natural gas pipeline was blown up, and a top-ranking security official was surgically gunned down on his way to work, a bullet piercing his Octavia’s black tinted windows.
A jihadist group calling itself Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Supporters of Jerusalem, claimed responsibility for these and other attacks, with the frequency and sophistication of their operations on the rise. Another militant group, Ajnad Masr, or Soldiers of Egypt, emerged last month, targeting police installations. Devoting little attention to the shadowy al Qaeda-inspired jihadists, the local media heaped blame on the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been officially branded a terrorist organization by the government.
Claiming to have no political affiliation, a vigilante anti-government group is making waves in their vendetta against the deep state. They call themselves Burn, and their first act of sabotage was the February 7 firebombing of a police checkpoint in Giza. For a broad public, the terror bombings have turned the police into victims or valiant defenders. For a good many, they are perpetrators.
“I don’t like the Brotherhood; I don’t hate the Brotherhood,” says Sami Farouk Ahmed, a 38-year-old tour guide and Sinai native whose brother Saber was martyred in Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011, a pivotal day of revolution. It was a Thursday night, and we were standing by a vendor selling T-shirts for $2 in Tahrir as an armored police van, sirens blaring, circled the square menacingly.
“The police killed my brother,” Sami says, so there is no love lost between him and the police. It was plain who he despises. “I hate anyone who fucks with my business.” After the massacre of Morsi supporters at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August, he mentions, whatever tourism there was in Egypt dried up.
Zizo does not consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terror organization, but a failure for reaching power and not accomplishing a thing. He believes the authorities make the Brotherhood out to be terrorists to conceal their crimes. “We reject all violence, and we see the face of the interior ministry as the true terrorism.”
But he was well aware that a commitment to nonviolence was no protection. If the authorities wanted to go after him, he knew they could easily set him up and convince a gullible public he, too, was conspiring against the state. Enough Egyptians were already convinced revolutionaries like him were traitors.
Amre Moussa is a career diplomat, chairman of the constituent assembly, and a strong endorser of defense minister Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi’s bid for the presidency. In 2011 Moussa himself ran for the top job. As the foreign minister for a decade and the secretary-general of the Arab League for another decade, he was a favorite to win and polls had him in the lead. On election day, he finished fifth.
Moussa is easily annoyed when anyone refers to Morsi’s ouster as a coup. “We could not afford to have the rule of Dr. Morsi continue for one more day,” he says emphatically in his posh and spacious offices at the Shura Council, the upper chamber of parliament that was eliminated in the new constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party dominated the elections for the Shura Council, winning more than half the seats. The chamber was dissolved along with Morsi’s ouster. Outside, guarding the edifice, are armored personnel carriers and soldiers stationed with automatic weapons pressed to their chests.
“General al-Sisi is coming after a revolution that rejected oppression by any regime. It is a revolution that has toppled two presidents, one after the other,” argues Moussa.
He brushes aside concern over the return of military rule. “The constitution has called for a civil state, a civil government,” he emphasizes. “When we support General al-Sisi we support him as the former commander in chief, ex-general. Now he is going to run, of course, as independent and also civilian. This is not the only general who has put forth his candidature. So many countries elected generals after their retirement.”
He places full faith in the guarantees outlined in the constitution. “We want to promote democracy as the system we want to follow,” says Moussa. “We cannot leave the country in the hands of any group—without specifying a group—that would use violence and terrorize people. This is absolutely unacceptable.”
When asked what role the Muslim Brotherhood could play, he replies, “It is up to them. The constitution does not exclude them or any Egyptian citizen.” Yet the authorities have imprisoned the leadership of the Brotherhood, their television station and newspaper were shut down, and the courts have ordered the confiscation of their funds and properties.
“This is a political statement, that they are accused of terrorism or at least violence in the streets and many cities. This is an unacceptable policy, not only for the government but for any citizen because it disturbs the life in our society. But the door is open for them to make use, to benefit from the liberties, freedoms, basic rights that the constitution gave everybody.”
Having a ruling coalition and an opposition, he adds, “are the two wings of a democratic system.”
Moussa predicts that elections for president, parliament, and municipal councils would end the turmoil and set Egypt on the right track. He excuses the heavy-handed measures used by the authorities. “This is a transitional period, full of tension and violence, which make it necessary for the government to take certain action,” he explains. “All this should come to an end and will come to an end by bringing Egypt back to a normal situation.”
On January 27 interim president Adli Mansour anointed al-Sisi the highest military rank of field marshal and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave their top commander the green light to run for president.
“Can al-Sisi unite Egyptians?” I ask, seeing how Moussa already assumes him to be the country’s next president, even before he announces his intention to seek elected office. “This is his main responsibility of course, being a president of all Egyptians. He will not repeat the mistake of Mr. Morsi, a president who belonged to and catered to and did not see except his group. The attitude of General al-Sisi when he becomes President al-Sisi is to represent all Egyptians, cater to the needs of everybody.”
“There is nothing called Arab Spring,” Moussa concludes, “but the movement for change will continue.”
Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque was a flashpoint of the revolution on the fourth day of revolution, January 28, 2011, the Friday of Rage. Perusing a zero-tolerance policy, security forces broke up opposition protests three years later on January 25, 2014, firing off volleys of tear-gas canisters and shotguns to disperse crowds just as the Revolution Path Front’s protest at 1:00 PM was getting underway.
Another group of revolutionary youth massed on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate, shouting anti-military and anti-Brotherhood slogans. As soon as they started to march, security forces opened fire. One after the other, police crushed all their rallies before they could gain momentum.
For the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the former president, rallies were organized to galvanize opposition to the coup, resist the security state, and to keep alive the memory of the Rabaa massacre, which claimed at least 627 lives, according to the state medical examiner. The actual number may be a thousand or more, since some bodies did not make a detour at the morgue before burial.
By nightfall on January 25, 62 Egyptians were killed in clashes with security forces in greater Cairo alone. More than 1,000 were arrested. The third anniversary of the revolution was a reminder of just how the hard-won right to protest has been taken away.
The square was stolen from the revolutionaries.
Tahrir Square, which had been owned by protesters opposing the system, was turned into a venue that supports the state, the military, and an army general’s candidacy for president. Security checkpoints, bag searches, and metal detectors blocked the entrances to Tahrir on January 25, a national holiday. Singing and cheering filled the square as military helicopters dropped Egyptian flags. Blocks away and across cities and provinces, clashes erupted between protesters and police.
This was intended to be a day crowning al-Sisi the people’s choice for president. Street vendors briskly sold posters of the defense minister, pictured in military attire, in a suit, with the head of a lion in the background, flanked by venerated past presidents and military commanders Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Flags waved, nationalist hymns blared from the speakers set up on the stage. Banners, facemasks, and memorabilia exalted the cult of a military man.
The bombings a day earlier stirred rising anger against the Muslim Brotherhood, with crowds chanting, “The people want the execution of the Brotherhood.” One of the posters sold had the organization’s leaders tied up and awaiting slaughter like sheep by a knife-wielding al-Sisi.
Soon-to-be president or not, al-Sisi is seen as the man in charge, inspiring fervent admiration or vitriolic hatred. Inside the symbolic heart of revolution, rarely is the cry of the revolution heard: bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity. Since the massacre at Rabaa the metro has even skipped the Tahrir Square stop for fear that it would be taken over by opposition protesters.
The youth of the Revolution Path Front know that they need to begin anew carving out spaces for dissent and activism, even if it starts with small protests at the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate. They also know their activities are being closely watched by the police. But if Germany was able to emerge from the horrors of the Third Reich to become an democratic state and an economic powerhouse, Zizo tells me, then Egypt’s process of transitional justice and healing a polarized society ought to be much less trying.